Crisis Communications – The Definitive Guide To Managing The Message

Author: Steven Fink

In 34 chapters, the author explains what crisis communication is about. Everyone knows

  • We Know;
  • We Care;
  • We Do;
  • We’ll be Back.

But if it stays there you miss a lot. Note: We know, care, do, be back is already a good start if you are just in crisis. The problem originates when you put in too many stereotypical phrases. Then the crowd reacts with ‘Yeah, right!’. This also happens if you want to say ‘We’re sorry’ and give it a wrong turn.

Communication is so much more, and pay attention, not everyone can do it. But some positions in the organization (CEOs often) have to show up under certain circumstances. The pitfall of ‘No comment!’ and the like is often there then. The book therefore starts with an example of how it should not be: “I’d like my life back”. The author writes this book with a lot of examples from his practice. He then also goes into what the CEO of BP should have said and done.

But there are many more lessons to be learned from the book. I will pick up a few things here that have stayed with me.

The first thing is: how do you recognize a spokesman? This white raven has the following characteristics:

  • He / she wants to do it;
  • He / she is credible;
  • He / she speaks intelligibly (without jargon) and understandably (clearly);
  • He / she has sympathy;
  • He / she has a good cuddling factor;
  • He / she has knowledge of the matter;
  • He / she is not easily influenced.

He / she also has a good intuitive approach to the following issues:

  • What do you do with an aggressive reporter who interrupts you with a new question?
  • Do you always answer the question asked?
  • If there are several camera crews, do you know where to look?
  • What if many questions are asked at once?

A second thing that remains is the phenomenon of ‘lawyers’. They often want to hear ‘no comment’ in order not to have a (false?) appearance of guilt if you show empathy (We Care, We’re sorry) because that gives a lot of extra work in the courtroom. So you speak to them, you consult with them, but ‘no comment’ is not an option.

In addition, Mark Twain’s quote sticks: “Always tell the truth, that way you do not have anything to remember.” But remember: telling the whole truth is only for in court. What is strongly associated with this is the reputation of the organization and the amount of goodwill it receives from the customers.

One of the most difficult things is communication when victims have fallen. Then the audience wants to know 3 things:

  • What happened? Tell the facts.
  • How did it happen? You should not just go into this. Say you are investigating it. And that is true. This is only definitively known after the judicial investigation.
  • What are you doing? Do not say that it will never happen again, you can not promise that. Rather say that there is an ongoing investigation and that you will give more information the moment results become available.

Sometimes you have to say sorry. This is best done on your own initiative and first. It steals the ‘thunder’.

You also need to know what your crisis is and what is not. You solve your crisis, the rest is done by the police and the court. You must therefore first recognize, identify and isolate your own crisis.

Furthermore, there are crisis communication strategies. You have to be able to tackle some common issues.

  • Who will you communicate with?
  • How will you do this?
  • Who speaks with the discussion partners?
  • Is the government at your side?
  • What is the ‘key message’?
  • How can you keep coming back to that?
  • Which questions should you anticipate?
  • Keep the message specific.
  • Stay understandable, do not escape in jargon!
  • Be honest and take care of evidence.
  • Determine the ‘take away message’.
  • Use examples and metaphors that people can understand.
  • And last but not least: determine what you will do if you yourself are the crisis.

And then of course as icing on the cake: how do you build a defensible decision?

The book reads smoothly, is lavishly upholstered with practical examples of how things should and should not be done. The book does not guarantee that you will be a crisis communicator after reading it. But it is a good start to practice, practice, and practice again.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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